Rugby World Cup 2011: The Welsh nation expects

By Gareth RobertsBBC Sport Wales
Wales fans in New Zealand
Wales can only wonder at the expressions of their fans at the World Cup's end

Wales coach Warren Gatland and his Rugby World Cup players not only carry the weight of a nation's hopes but also fans' fears as they try to make history.

Those fears are justified when looking at Wales' rollercoaster ride at the tournament.

The words Samoa and Fiji offer a haunting refrain to any Welsh fan expressing optimism ahead of the 2011 event in New Zealand.

And little wonder. Western Samoa - as they were then - beat Wales 16-13 at the old Arms Park in 1991 and repeated the feat in a 38-31 win at the Millennium Stadium in 1999.

In 2007, Wales were at it again, coming up short in one of the most memorable RWC encounters, a 38-34 defeat by Fiji in Nantes that ended their tournament as Samoa did in 1991.

This time around, Wales face Fiji and Samoa in as well as reigning champions South Africa and their Namibian neighbours.

Wales attempted to replicate the sort of forward-dominated approach the Springboks will employ by hosting and beating Argentina in their final World Cup build-up match in August and also faced England twice.

England won 23-19 at Twickenham, Wales winning the return 19-9 in Cardiff - on both occasions claiming to have been fitter than Martin Johnson's side.

Against the Pumas, Wales were also triumphant, but the hosts' approach that day left pundit and former Wales captain Gwyn Jones less than impressed with Fiji and Samoa in mind.

"It's fine to kick it to Argentina because we know they might well kick it back," said Jones.

"But we're going to play in the two defining matches of the World Cup against Samoa and Fiji, neither of whom have got much of a front five or a set-piece game and they are going to live off the ball that we kick them.

"So if that's going to be our attitude, to kick in our own 22, kick infield to counter-attacking teams, we're in trouble.

"We need to find something a little bit more creative or imaginative... and to be more daring and bold with possession.

"That aside, I think our conditioning is incredibly good... and our defence is still very, very strong."

Experience is also vital at World Cups. Every tournament-winning team has had a hardcore of battle-hardened veterans to call on in key positions.

England's 2003 winners had Martin Johnson at the helm alongside some of the most lauded players to don their kit.

Samoa wing Inga Tuigamala celebrates their 1999 World Cup win over Wales
Samoa wing Inga Tuigamala celebrates their 1999 World Cup win over Wales

Likewise in '99, the Wallabies had players of the ilk of skipper John Eales and Tim Horan and it was a similar story in 1991 when Australia saw off England 12-9 in the final at Twickenham.

Gatland opted not to bring back 76-time capped scrum-half Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones' calf injury means he could be left with a choice between young challenger Rhys Priestland and James Hook for the number 10 jersey against the Boks.

Hook is an experienced hand, but has been frustrated in his ambitions by being an irregular fly-half.

So if scrum-half Mike Phillips is injured at any stage, Wales' middle five could consist of a relatively untried, back-row of Danny Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton along with half-backs Tavis Knoyle and Priestland or Hook.

But Wales can still take comfort from one slice of tournament history.

Their best performance was in New Zealand in 1987. They may have lost 49-6 to the All Blacks in the semi-finals, but ended third with a 22-21 play-off win over Australia in Rotorua.


Forwards: (16)

Props: Ryan Bevington, Adam Jones, Paul James (all Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Blues), Craig Mitchell (Exeter), Hookers: Huw Bennett (Ospreys), Lloyd Burns (Dragons), Ken Owens (Scarlets). Locks: Luke Charteris (Dragons), Bradley Davies (Blues), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys). Back-rows: Toby Faletau (Dragons), Ryan Jones (Ospreys), Danny Lydiate (Dragons), Andy Powell (Sale Sharks), Sam Warburton (Blues, capt).

Backs: (14)

Full-backs/wings: Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne), Aled Brew (Dragons), Leigh Halfpenny (Blues), George North (Scarlets), Shane Williams (Ospreys). Centres: Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Jamie Roberts (Blues), Scott Williams (Scarlets). Fly-halves: James Hook (Perpignan), Stephen Jones, Rhys Priestland (both Scarlets), Scrum-halves: Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), Michael Phillips (Bayonne), Lloyd Williams (Blues).

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